• A Maasai mama plays the drum as others dance.

The Majestic Maasai

A long-awaited introduction

We could hear them coming from down the hall. I held my breath. I’d been waiting for something like this since 2001, when I first heard of this tribe. I sat in the small crowd, and the Maasai women, dressed head to toe in brightly printed fabrics, filed in. Their calm joy radiated as they sang and danced, jingling their beaded necklaces and the trim that adorned their clothing — dangling, metal discs that bobbed to the beat and caught the light with every move.

If you have never seen a Maasai woman dance, it is hard to imagine. Her body jingles as her chin juts forward and back, her chest rises and falls, her knees bend up and down, her arms sway gently at her sides; each individual movement perfectly timed to the driving beat. I tried to do this once, in a crowd of Maasai dancing at a wedding celebration. Some kind-hearted community members tried to patiently teach me, others just giggled at my foolish attempt to get my chin and chest and knees in sync.

In later years I was to call the people of another Maasai community my friends, my dear brothers and sisters. But this retreat was long before that. In this moment, I was new to Kenya. New to all of it. This ladies’ retreat was filled with women from various tribes from all over Kenya, Uganda, and Sudan. I was asked to lead worship for the retreat (which is another story for another topic!). On this day, I was simply overwhelmed by the pure dignity, grace, and beauty of these women and their equally stunning faith, and I viewed it all with awe and wonder, held captive, breathless, with tears in my eyes, at that which I had longed to see for many years.

The rhythmic procession of red, gold, and black came to a halt across the front of the room. A young woman, the only instrumentalist of the group, began a new beat on her drum, and a new call and response song began, led by a wizened, wrinkled woman. The women switched directions, changed feet, and a new dance ensued.

What happened next was stunning

Before I realized what was happening, a scene was enacted in front of me, all in the form of song and dance. To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what the scene was about, but I could tell that there was a main character. This main character seemed to have troubles in life, signified by draping the kanga (fabric) over her head. In the end, the character seemed to be happy. I assumed this was a story about redemption from God. (Such is the typical cross-cultural experience—you are never fully sure of everything that is happening.) However, though I was unclear on the plot, the dance and scene were breathtaking.

After they were finished, one of the leaders of the retreat, a fellow expat, stood up and thanked the Maasai women, pausing for translation every phrase or so. She asked for a Maasai representative to explain the performance. The lady explained the scene was actually a reenactment of a drama scene they had witnessed at the same ladies’ retreat, a year before. An American group of women who had come to volunteer at the retreat had acted out a scene in mime and it had deeply impacted the Maasai, who took the story and made it their own, creating am original song and dance to tell the same story.

The power of the arts on display

I was utterly floored. Never in my life had I witnessed such a perfect example of the power of the arts, and of drama in particular. A year later these women still remembered the story? Had they been retelling it all this time? Since that time, I’ve never seen the Maasai use such pure drama … from what I know, it is not a common part of their cultural expressions. Perhaps they do use it in another way, but not that I have witnessed. However, the American women’s drama had so deeply influenced them that they had pondered it and re-expressed it. They understood it at the heart level enough to tell it in their own way. I doubted that a speech would have had the same effect.

This story stuck because it was a live enactment of human action. And it was a story that they could recognize — of pain, a fall, and redemption. And I knew in that moment that a seed had been sown in my own heart as well. It took many years to grow into a full tree, but today I can see its fruit as Awaken Creative Institute begins to take its first steps.

Author: Lesa Brown

Date: December 2, 2020